Managing Stress and Burnout - Dan's Story


As a kid, I loved playing & watching soccer, singing, videos, video games, hanging with friends, and generally, learning about the world. Throughout school and university, I was a pretty happy, positive person; friends, school, sport & music were all enriching parts of my life.

After uni, I started a new role in big tech. It came with lots of responsibility and I felt huge pressure and fear that I was underperforming early on. My sleep started to worsen and I’d wake up feeling stressed. I felt less joy and excitement from things that once gave me pleasure. I would count down the hours and minutes before I had to go to a meeting.

I was at a medical appointment unrelated to mental health, when a staff member expressed concern about my wellbeing. At the time I was feeling a bit off, but hadn’t self-identified with any mental health conditions. That got me thinking, but it still took me a few months as stronger thoughts emerged around ‘I’m feeling down, stressed, anxious’ to finally talking to a psychologist.

In 2021, I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and burnout. A combination of factors were at play here that extend across a long time span. I grew up in a household with a verbally & psychologically abusive dad with alcohol addiction, prescription painkiller addiction, and several mental health disorders, stemming from early childhood trauma.

Over the years, I had my parents divorce, went through 2 child custody cases as a pre-teen and teenager. Eventually, my dad’s addictions worsened, as did his physical and mental state, and I had to assist with several emergency hospitalisations around his physical & mental health, as well as intervening with several threats to suicide.

Eventually, in September 2020, he died by suicide. It was a complex grief and the first few months after I felt relieved of the burden. I was working at a cool startup, travelling with friends, meditating, and felt energised and optimistic. But after returning to Sydney and starting a new role in product management at a big tech company, things soon started to hit me. I would work longer hours than I needed to, but still feel like I had achieved nothing. After seeing such direct human suffering in my family, I felt cynical about my work and life choices. 

I first found help through my work who helped me access support on an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I also found a bereavement counselling service from St Vincent’s Hospital. These two services made me realise I needed something more long-term and holistic, which I found with a psych recommended by Headspace.I kept seeing a psych for several months after I recovered, and it’s something I want to re-engage as a good safety net.

I know I’m struggling when… I see fading interest or pleasure in things I usually enjoy. I feel anxious thoughts when I wake up. Or I start counting down the hours until I have to do something. 

I try to pick myself up by… starting with the basics. When I was feeling like a 2/10, I focused on getting to a 3/10, not a 10/10. I got the basics in check: sleep, exercise, diet, hydration, meditation and some social interaction. I created more space for myself rather than filling my time with too many social catchups; it's okay to say no to social commitments and set boundaries to guard your time & energy. I tried to focusing on finding what activities were giving energy instead of draining energy. 

Now I take care of myself by… running regularly to stay healthy, and setting up recurring catch ups with friends who energise me. I talk to family and friends openly and early when I’m struggling. I also set an evening alarm that tells me to stop working and unwind. But I’m still working it out; it’s not a perfect system. 

What would you say to a young person who's struggling right now? 

It’s hard to help others until you help yourself, and you have to start with the basics. Listen to what your body needs. Find authentic human connection with people around you. Don't beat yourself up over the past or place undue judgment on yourself. Try to reflect on the little things you were grateful for at the end of the day, even if it’s just one thing.

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